By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Cathy Guerriero has never run for public office in her life, but like a baseball ballplayer who skips the minors and goes straight to the major leagues, she is making her maiden voyage into politics by seeking one of the top spots in city government.
Guerriero, an adjunct professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, is one of five candidates running in the Democratic primary for public advocate. The primary is Sept. 10.
The public advocate, a sort-of ombudsman for ordinary New Yorkers with gripes against city government, is a little known office that operates mostly under the radar. The office operates with a budget of less than $3 million year. And there has been talk of abolishing the office altogether. But under the City Charter, the public advocate is next in line to become mayor if something were to happen to the mayor. The current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, is running for mayor.
In the race to succeed de Blasio, Guerriero is running against Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Fort Greene-Clinton Hill), state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn Heights), former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani, and Sidque Wai, an official at the Police Department in charge of outreach to the African-American and Muslim communities.
Guerriero, who was born in Gravesend, lived for many years on Staten Island and currently resides in Manhattan, is hoping that her outsider status attracts voters tired of the political status quo. “I’m running against three career politicians,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a phone interview on Aug. 26. She was referring to James, Squadron, and Saujani.
“I come at this from a different perspective. Instead of spending your life running for one public office after another, thinking that it’s time for you to move up the ladder, I believe you should live a life and make a contribution to society first. I think you should know something before you run for public office. Have a life well lived. Have a set of experiences before running for public office,” she said.
Guerriero has a PhD in school policy has been teaching education and politics at Teachers College, for nearly a decade. She also teaches at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. She runs a strategic planning consultant business that assists small business owners and non-profit organizations.
She is the former director of Strategic Planning for the Archdiocese of New York and the former director of Government Relations for Catholic Charities. She served as associate director for the Archdiocese of New York and helped coordinate the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York in 2008, which she called “an incredible experience.”
She worked for two years in Market Development at Merck Pharmaceuticals and she put herself through graduate school as a sports reporter for the Staten Island Advance. She had gone to Wagner College on a basketball scholarship.
The office of public advocate “isn’t sexy” Guerriero admitted. “You can’t save planet earth, but you can pick up a phone and get something done. You can help that person with the high water bill. You can get after that city agency and push them to serve people better. People think the office is powerless but it’s not,” she said.
To compensate for the low budget the office operates under, Guerriero said she plans to establish a think-tank to help develop ideas. She also plans to spend one day a week in each borough. “I won’t stay in Manhattan all the time. Manhattan is not the whole city. It is a slice of the city,” she said.
Guerriero’s moxie has garnered her attention and endorsements. She has been endorsed by dozens of unions, including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, civic organizations, and religious groups.
She shocked the political establishment with her strong showing in polls. The Staten Island Advance reported that a Wall Street Journal-News 4 New York-Marist poll conducted in late June had her running neck and neck with James for the lead. James had 17 percent. Guerriro had 16 percent. Squadron had 8 percent, while Saujani trailed with 4 percent. Wai’s name didn’t register in the poll.
Guerriero is the oldest of six children and spent her early childhood living on East 17th Street between Avenue S and Avenue T in Gravesend. “We moved to Staten Island when I was 11. The whole block came out to say goodbye to my mother; 100 people lined up to hug her. You know how there’s always one person on the block who organizes the block parties? That was my mother,” she said.
She boasts of her working class background. “I come from three generations of union workers. My grandfather was a longshoreman. My mother was a teacher. My father worked two jobs for 35 years,” she said.